But on the first day of 2011, in their most important game of the season, the Badgers strayed from their winning script -- and it cost them the Rose Bowl. That's no dig at Texas Christian. The No. 3 Horned Frogs played hard, played fast and showed why any undefeated team -- regardless of conference affiliation -- should be invited to a Bowl Championship Series game. But TCU's 21-19 win was defined as much by Wisconsin's mistakes, missed opportunities and questionable coaching calls
as it was by the Horned Frogs' stout play.
At several critical junctures on Saturday, Wisconsin simply made uncharacteristic flubs, and most of the damage was self-inflicted. The Badgers came into Saturday's matchup as the least-penalized team in the country, averaging just three flags a game. Against TCU, coach Bret Bielema's team committed six penalties, including a critical defensive pass interference in the third quarter that allowed TCU to avoid a third and long deep in its own half.
While Wisconsin, playing in its fourth Rose Bowl since 1994, did not commit any turnovers, the Badgers dropped passes, fumbled a snap and literally ran into each other on defense. A collision between defensive backs Niles Brinkley and Jay Valai allowed TCU tailback Ed Wesley to scoot free for a 33-yard catch-and-run on TCU's opening drive of the second half. The Horned Frogs scored their third and final touchdown three plays later.
"What got us here was clean execution and clean, disciplined football, and we didn't do that today," said Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, who completed 12 of 21 passes for 159 yards, but often held on to the ball too long. He was sacked twice, hit hard on a handful of other occasions, and overthrew or failed to see open receivers on several other occasions.
"Not getting rid of the ball quicker, that's what I can control, and I didn't do that," said Tolzien. "It hurt us today."
But the most conspicuous errors may have been committed by Bielema -- a finalist for the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year award -- and his staff. The decision that Wisconsin fans will likely debate for years came in the game's climactic moment, after Wisconsin running back Montee Ball rumbled in for a four-yard touchdown to cut TCU's lead to 21-19 with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Ball's score capped a 10-play, 77 yard drive that was textbook Wisconsin: nine bruising runs through the heart of TCU's defense, which appeared worn down by the Badgers' Bunyan-esque offensive linemen.
Wisconsin still needed a two-point conversion to tie -- and even TCU's best defenders expected another run. But Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst put the Badgers' offense in a shotgun formation, with Ball the lone back to Tolzien's left. There was no deception, no hint of a handoff -- just a straight pass designed to get the ball to 6-foot-4 Wisconsin tight end Jacob Pedersen in the middle of the end zone. But the Frogs blitzed, and Tolzien's pass was knocked down at the line by TCU linebacker Tank Carder.
To be fair, Pedersen was open, and Bielema said after the game that Wisconsin had put in that conversion play, and practiced it for three weeks, after identifying a weakness in TCU's defense. "I felt confident with the call, Paul felt confident, and we went with it," said Bielema after the game. "Hindsight is 20-20."
But even Carder, who was named the game's defensive MVP, conceded he was relieved to see Wisconsin line up in a passing formation.
"On the last play, I figured it was going to be a run. They had been effectively running the ball for three or four yards the whole game," said Carder, who also delivered the game's biggest hit, a thumping sack of Tolzien that ended a Wisconsin third-quarter drive. "Fortunately they got into a shotgun ... (I) saw (Tolzien) cock his arm back and I jumped, and that was the end of it."
It wasn't Bielema's only head-scratcher. On the final possession of a back-and-forth first half, which included the highest-scoring first quarter in Rose Bowl history, Wisconsin had the ball at TCU's 21 yard-line with about 40 seconds remaining. The Badgers still had all three of their timeouts, and had been in possession of the ball for all but 30 seconds of the second quarter.
But rather than take a timeout and continue the drive, Bielema elected to kill the clock for a field goal attempt by Philip Welch, who had missed a 39 yarder earlier in the half. Welch made the 37-yard kick to make the score 14-13 at halftime, but Bielema's conservative decision belied the offensive bravado he displayed all season, when the Badgers rolled up 83 points against Indiana and 70 against both Northwestern and Austin Peay.
"We were content with taking the points," said Bielema. "This game wasn't decided on one play or two plays. It was probably an accumulation of 10 to 12 plays that we failed to execute."